Tennessee students made some of the largest gains in the country in this year’s National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), the so-called “nation’s report card.”

Tennessee is “one of the few bright spots” in the NAEP data this year, said Erik Hanushek, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution of Stanford University. Most states’ scores increased by just one point in 4th and 8th grade math and 4th grade reading and by three points on 8th grade reading between 2011 and 2013. But scores for both 4th and 8th grade students in Tennessee jumped between 4 and 7 points in each of the tested subjects.

“It’s hard to move the needle on all four grades and subjects unless you’re really doing something,” said Jack Buckley, the commissioner of the National Center for Education Statistics, which administers NAEP.

In Tennessee, as elected officials planned press conferences today celebrating the increased scores that were released this morning, educators debated what, exactly, may have caused the growth.

Both the District of Columbia and Tennessee schools have been home to dramatic reforms in teacher compensation and evaluation in recent years, and were among the early adopters of policies that tie teacher pay and evaluations to student test scores. But similar policies are in place around the country now.

National Assessment

A national representative sample of 342,000 8th graders and 377,000 4th graders took the reading and math tests early this year. More data from the 2013 tests, including national scores for 12th graders in reading and math, will be released in the coming months.

Individual schools’ and students’ scores on NAEP are not publicized.

While each state has its own standardized test, each of which has changed over time, the NAEP remains relatively constant and is designed to allow for comparisons to be made between states and over time. State and education leaders use the data to compare where states fall academically and how different groups of students fare within their states. The data are also frequently used to make claims about national education progress compared to other countries, with some experts saying, for instance, that low NAEP scores are a threat to national security.

On the 2013 test, Tennessee students made the largest gains in the country in 4th and 8th grade reading. Tennessee 4th and 8th graders’ math test score gains outpaced every state except for the District of Columbia. Tennessee, the District of Columbia, and Department of Defense schools were the only jurisdictions that saw increases in both tested subjects in both tested grades. (See chart below for more detail.)

 

Tennessee leads the nation in growth, but big disparities remain

| Infographics

Referendum on Reforms?

Changes in Tennessee’s policies on teacher effectiveness were heralded as a potential reason for the growth. Arne Duncan, the U.S. Secretary of Education, suggested Wednesday that Tennessee and D.C. in particular had succeeded because of their “laser-like focus on teacher effectiveness” and rapid shift to new standards known as the Common Core. Duncan made adopting common standards and new teacher evaluations that weigh student performance a requirement for winning federal funds through Race to the Top, a federal grant program.

While many states have since adopted similar policies, Tennessee was among the first winners of a $500 million Race to the Top grant in 2010 and has gone farther than many other states. For instance, fifty percent of Tennessee teachers’ evaluations are based on students’ growth on standardized tests.

Hanushek said the NAEP results validate the pace of change in Tennessee and D.C. “That’s why this is so significant: There was huge pushback, particularly from current school personnel who liked the way things were going, thank you,” Hanushek said. “You wouldn’t want to get into a fight if it had no impact. But in fact, the improved performance [on NAEP] is something that they should be proud about.”

But Hanushek said the overall picture remained discouraging, with scores across the country improving less quickly than they have in the past.

Arne Duncan attributed the variations among states to what he called “extraordinary leadership” at the state level, from officials who have “done some very difficult and courageous work” raising standards. He added, “Where people are more timid, you’re seeing less progress.”

Achievement Gaps Linger

Despite the progress, just 27 percent of Tennessee’s 8th graders scored proficient or above in math, placing those students near the bottom of the country. Tennessee students’ scores on the 8th grade math and 4th grade reading and math tests were below the national average, despite the growth.

More than half of Tennessee’s students live below the poverty line, while 81 percent attend schools designated as Title I by the federal government due to their high concentrations of low-income students.

“The issue’s so multifaceted…New evaluation doesn’t solve the problem of a kid going hungry at night,” said Samantha Bates, a 7th grade language arts teacher in Buchanan.

Nationally and in Tennessee, achievement gaps between racial groups lingered. Tennessee black students, almost a quarter of the state’s student population, continued to perform well below their white peers. In 4th grade reading, for example, white students performed 26 points higher than their black peers, a three-point increase over Tennessee’s 2011 gap.

Real change

In Tennessee, some of the policy changes credited with raising test scores have upset teachers, parents, and community activists. Teacher advocacy groups have said that using test scores to account for half of a teacher’s evaluation is unfair, and many Race to the Top-funded turnaround efforts meant that beloved teachers lost jobs.

Some question whether the state will continue with the same policies now that the influx of the $500 million Race to the Top grant comes to an end.

“It’ll be key to watch in Tennessee to watch how they’re doing in two years and if they keep improving,” the NCES’s Buckley said.

“If it’s some sort of reform magic, then what’s happening in Florida?” Kevin Welner, the director of the National Education Policy Center at the University of Colorado in Boulder, said, referring to another state whose growth on NAEP was heralded several years ago but didn’t see similar results this year.

Bates, the 7th grade teacher, said that she felt that the state’s new teacher evaluations had helped improve teachers’ practice, but not because of the threat of losing jobs: “It’s not the accountability — it’s the rubrics.” In other words, evaluations were clearer about how teachers needed to improve, she said.

Bates said that she felt that the NAEP scores did represent real improvement in Tennessee schools. She credited higher state standards implemented several years before Race to the Top and a higher benchmark for passing state tests. “Students have been doing harder material and having to do it at better rates, and the teachers have implemented it better…when you expect more out of students, they will deliver,” she said.

J.C. Bowman, the executive director of the Professional Educators of Tennessee, said, “You’ll hear that it’s a reflection of policies in place, the federal government will say it’s attributable to Race to the Top and the state will say it’s a reflection of a renewed emphasis on education. I’m going to say, hey, it’s a reflection of the teacher in the classroom that’s working hard every day.”

Sarah Darville and Daarel Burnette contributed reporting to this article.